Death metal. Possibly considered the common denominator amongst many fans of heavy metal in the modern age, it has held its grip on the hearts of fans since its inception in the late 80s to its heyday of the early to mid 90s. Even throughout the so-called “dark ages” of the late 90s and early 00s, death metal never died. While early pioneers continued to push the genre to new heights, other bands took different directions on what they thought death metal could be. From the brutal grooves of a band like Autopsy to the technical prowess of Cynic, musicians were quick to jump on this new sound and explore just how far they could incorporate it into their artistic visions. This progression continued in various facets; from the stripped down HM-2 sound of the Stockholm scene to its evolution into melodeath via the Gothenburg scene, or the punishing low-end and eccentric technicality of Finland (Convulse and Demilich, respectively), or perhaps the odd shift in progression occurring in Canada at the hands of Gorguts. This boom was bound to plateau, and it did.
As with anything, limits are bound to be reached. In the earlier days of baseball, records could be topped within a year or two as players discovered the limits of human potential in regards to the sport. The gap between new records grows as the furthest reaches of what the body can do become just within reach, inching closer and closer to the peak. Anyone my age (or older and still living) probably remembers the race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire in 1998, when the two players were both well within range of Roger Maris’ home-run record. For the first time since 1961, the home run record was within range of being broken, and it did. Funnily enough, the same year in death metal, Portal released their first demo onto the world, the first glimpse of something genuinely new in death metal that would come in later years with albums such as Seepia in 2003, and even more so Outre’ in 2007. While it would be unfair to say that death metal hasn’t progressed since then, the watermarks are becoming further and further apart. While the Sosa/McGwire pentacles will forever have an asterisk next to them thanks to the use of performance enhancers, Portal too should be marked with an asterisk because what they did redefined what it was death metal actually is. Even today, despite being in the midst of a massive renaissance in death metal, there aren’t many bands testing exactly what the genre can be.
And then there are bands like Cryptae.
For their first “official” release (this meaning not a demo, which in the current age is basically a proper release), Cryptae seeks to further the divide between themselves and the current state of death metal. Cryptae want something new. While Cryptae could be divided into four separate tracks, their 2019 EP Vestigial is a single, 18-minute long voyage into the twisted, surreal world of terror that leeches its way into the mind via the tympanic membrane. It starts slow, with the steady, organic sounding toms beneath a few ominous chords before launching into the pulse of the music, the backbone that holds Cryptae together. The most essential piece of the band is by far its rhythm—the discordant banging of the guitar serves as a percussive instrument more than one of melodies, acting in caustic harmony with the drums as they lead the way through the piece. While they beat away in a lively, tribal fashion, the atonal guitar work adds a certain mechanical feel to the mood, clanking away in repetitive, inhuman chaos that pulls the listener deeper into the songs, filling the space between the drums, forever enslaved to the pulsating, living terror of Vestigial.
The vocals are near-indecipherable, uttering words of unseen horror and essentially dry-heaving over the whole affair. As the old adage goes, it’s not what you say, it how you say it, and this certainly applies to Cryptae. Adding a thicker layer of atmosphere, and operating across the percussive pounding of the instrumentation behind it, the vocals add the most organic, human component to the music, albeit distorted and perverted to levels beyond recognition.
At the crest of the piece of music that comprises Vestigial, there is a moment of zen as the music drops to a crawl as the frantic, angular rhythms succumb to a drawn out crest. Even the clashing tuning of the guitar seems to drip with melancholy over the accented downbeats of the drums. On the other side of the peak, the coaster drops into a more panicked arena of terror than that of its predecessor in what amounts to Cryptae’s interpretation of a crescendo. For the first time on the record, the high notes of the guitar cut through to center stage as they oscillate before giving way to a driving beat with what sounds like the guitar equivalent of mashing a busted piano, making for an undeniable atmosphere of terror. This second half explores in more depth the limitations Cryptae have set upon themselves as they seek to tear rabidly from the box they have been constructing around themselves.
The final quarter is a slow devolution of the bands sound as it collapses under its own weight into an ever-slowing sludge of downing tempos. The inclusion of pipe organ feels almost necessary to match the increasingly eerie drone of guitar and drums as they find their way full circle to the creeping notes that marked the introduction to the voyage of terror that is Vestigial, as though creeping its way back into the ether realm of mind-bending horror.
At its very core, Cryptae is still death metal. Death metal free of constraints, free to explore uncharted territory without the bounds of song construction. While the term “progressive” is often chained to a certain style or aesthetic, particularly in the realms of metal and rock music, Cryptae are progressive in the true spirit of the word, pushing the genre forward, even if it means moving back to a more primitive time to reconstruct it from its roots with the knowledge of retrospect. Even the title of the EP, Vestigial, which is defined by Merriam-Webster as “remaining as the last small part of something that existed before,” holds true, as Cryptae manages to cling to the very fringes of what has defined death metal, while creating something on the brink of an entirely new classification.